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The nighttime letters

[As of Aug 1999, the more factual parts of this page have grown into a collaborative database on a separate site, www.halfbakery.com.]

(March 2001) Karma, votes, etc. / peer-to-peer-journalism / censorship.

I'm reading "Trust us, we're experts" by Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber, specifically the chapter about the reaction to, and suppression of news about, a British scientist that was, for a while, prohibited from talking to journalists. So he tallked to a friend instead, and that friend ended up tallking to journalists, like in some Russian fairy tale.

On the peer-to-peer journalism mailing list that I've subscribed to, people are going on about karma, different ways of collectively filtering out noise.

I wonder how resistant peer-to-peer journalism could be against deliberate manipulation by industry shills. People feel invulnerable now because they're not yet very important, but it's actually pretty easy to create astroturf (pretend-grassroots) movements on the net. It must be an existing industry.

There's a difference between karma and reputation. You can fake a group that dislikes whistleblowers and votes down their articles, but you shouldn't be able to give them a bad reputation. More accurately, I wonder if it is possible to construct a system where it isn't possible to give someone a bad reputation. Where people who are told "he's a crazy old fool with no standing among his peers" can just look the guy up and see, nope, his standing among his peers is impeccable.

This is more structured - needs to be more structured - than karma. If you don't know the guy, you shouldn't be able to assault his reputation.

Maybe we ourselves, as we interact with people, exchange "reputation points" with them; because I like you, I give you the right to make statements about my character, as a token that proves to the outside world that we really are connected, and to show that I mean to behave ethically towards you (otherwise you might make bad statements about me).

Of course, this still doesn't mean that a lobbyist can't convince vaguely related people to make false statements.

In the long run, I guess companies that fund research could demand reputation tokens from the researchers as part of the commercial relationship, and then we're all back to zero -- but hey.

e-business. I hate that word. I hate its enuciation on KQED, eeeee-bizness, with a beat between the e- and the -business, stress on the e and the biz. E-, pause, what am I doing here reading these stupid ads, bizness.

It's not a word! It looks good in print, but it's not pronouncable! You can stop now. Go use "electronic commerce" instead.

What is the Maglite logo? A broken-off ass? I don't understand!

Wittgenstein references in pop music

1., 2. Since "intellectual stimulation" was the only feature listed as present in both the most wanted and the most unwanted song, Komar and Melamid working with Dave Soldier included references to Wittgenstein in the texts of both their 5 minute country ballad and the unpalatable 22 minute rap area interrupted by advertising jingles.

3. Track 10 of the Shamen's "Boss Drum", a casual name drop along the lines of "what Wittgenstein called the unspeakable". (I have no idea what they mean with that, but that holds true for most of the rest of the monologue.)

4. Momus' "Eleven Executioners", in the list of things that death will not be like: "...that strange proposition on silence, the Tractatus of Wittgenstein". (The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ends with the much quoted sentence "Worüber man nicht reden kann, darüber muß man schweigen", if you can't talk about it, be silent about it.)

5. There's a Laurie Anderson song "If You Can't Talk About It, Point To It" on United States I-IV dedicated to Wittgenstein.

Any others? [mail].

When someone writes, "On the Internet, we found more than X00,000 pages on the subject of Y", chances are Y is more than one word, and the author has just told you that they don't understand the query language of their search engine and searched, e.g., for foo bar on altavista rather than +foo +bar.

The other thing the author just dropped was the difference between containing a word and having a subject. Add ignorance about the structure of the web, and it's X00,000 sites, not just pages.

(Invariably, these people do not investigate the perceived over-representation of their topic; it's all part of the Internet being full of weirdos that are interested in anything.)

Sheesh, Jeeves

What's it with Jeeves (www.ask.com)? How did investors stupid enough to believe that
(a) a natural language interface is a good way of interfacing with a computer system in 1999
(b) the character of an English butler is a good way of animating a search engine
ever get enough money to run TV ads for their service?

OK, maybe I'm weird. But to me, Jeeves represents everything that I'm trying to get away from. I don't want to involve other people, I think keeping servants is immoral, and an old white male in a frock is not who I turn to when getting net-based advice.

It doesn't work for my real questions, either; and who are they kidding with their "recently asked questions", where all proper names are prefixed with a class designator? ("The language Indonesian", not "Indonesian"; "the foot problem gout", not "gout".)

Of course, that mismatched character is nothing compared to the nausea the Lycos ads ("lycos, fetch!") induce. Cars and Claudia Schiffer, is that all we want? And I'll have my porn without the dog drool on it, thanks.

And while we're on the subject of bad TV ads, can I please have the address of whoever made the "about.com" spot so I can avoid them for all my advertising needs? (Pan across human about.com guides standing in a desert. Different voices speaking part of the advertising copy.)

If only the campaign had focused on one guide at a time, it could have been as interesting and colorful as e.g. the Visa campaign (introducing interesting places that you can't play with Amex at). Instead their Sprockets version is as boring and flavorless as the "Internet desert" they're trying to distinguish themselves from.

Who exactly, do the people behind that ad text think, writes all those webpages on the Internet, posts in newsgroups, and populates the chat rooms? Are we all just characters out of Tron until about.com graces us with their greyscale portraits and places us in a hierarchical context we don't control?

I love and respect editing and magazines; I think people who know about a subject have the right and the obligation to educate and help others. But all in one place, all looking the same, all under the auspices of one site's policy, gently interjecting focused advertising into the stream? Internet startups are a cold and lonely place.

A series of greeting cards more in touch with corporate reality.
"Sorry your meeting got cancelled" (The "Meeting Cancellation fairy " with her magic meat mallet),
"Congratulations, your boss quit" etc.
(In cooperation with despair.com?)

We have email viruses, we have spam. How long until the two combine? Wouldn't it be funny if there were an email virus that, apart from propagating itself, also occasionally injects a paragraph into a user's email advocating some product or service? Is that even a crime?

Could the same be done with ftp and downloads to websites?

"You can't surf from a cellular phone." Do you think that's true? What if you had a fold-out/roll-out screen? What if you could mh-hm to your phone to direct it to follow a link it just mentioned? I wonder what one could do to such an interface to make it surfable.

What is it that makes something surfable in the first place? Having a landscape of circumstantial information from which to pick? It's not that sound is too low-bandwidth, it can carry a lot of information. We just don't seem to be using it that way.

Bullshit detector.
Plugin for Netscape/Internet Explorer/ ... ; accesses text in windows / object model, runs it through www.cynicalbastards.com/wankometer, and displays an animation (personally, I think a rotating flaming cow would be nice) that increases in intensity as the text increases in buzzword density.

Tufte meets Gibson meets Xerox. Not "Send me email when this page changes", more "greet me in the morning with a rendered virtual environment (casually representing page interconnections, ownership, size, traffic) in which things that changed recently are rendered in slightly more garish colors."

Virtual living room

A TV site combining program listings and per-program chat channels.

I prefer watching TV to watching videos because I know that thousands or millions of others are seeing the same thing at the same time. By watching a video, I merely amuse myself; by watching television, I catch up on what is amusing everybody else.

refrigerator poet, n.
1. An unoriginal person.
2. A very good salesman (cf. "selling refrigerators to the eskimos")
Fish-shaped tea bags.
Integrated email client/calendar. Drag emails onto days, be reminded of them when the day comes up. Remailing service: forward to Jan-1-2000@hostname.com, have it bounced back to you at that date.


We need a word for that specific flavor of horror vacui that sets in at 8pm on a Saturday when you notice that your cable modem service provider's down again, you can't surf, and all the 24 hour technical support hotline has to say is that "we are currently in the process of upgrading the system" (hey, what else is there to do on a Saturday night) and the tape is full.

Request timed out.
Request timed out.
Request timed out.
Request timed out.

You can't surf. You could watch TV instead, but you can't reach the site with the TV program, and you can't use the IMDB to check where you've seen that guy before. You can't send email to your friends. You can't check which bands are playing. You could work some, but you can't test what you've done because the server you're testing against is somewhere ... out there.

Request timed out.
Request timed out.
Request timed out.
Request timed out.

There's the Platonian concept of reality being a shadow of ideas. Without the net, I feel like I'm being left alone with nothing but the shadows.

Cars with speakers on the outside so that its passengers can sufficiently terrorize suburbs without placing their hearing in danger.


There is a whole discipline of computer-simulated body/body interactions (beyond mere collision detection) that I haven't heard much about yet. When one thing bumps into another thing, what kind of shape is their touching surface? How hard or soft are they? Do they bend or crack? If they're translucent, can you see where they touch? We have all this sophisticated stuff about describing shapes, but don't seem to do much about their interaction.

Desktop PC videophones always feel a bit like surveillance cameras - you're watching someone else from above, and even if that other person is communicating with you, they're still looking at a spot on the screen, not at the camera. One would have to move the camera behind the screen to fix that.

When I was younger, my family took me to a sea bath. I remember waves, and wooden planks, and an almost-abandoned arcade that featured a game where one had to steer a small airplane model mounted on a piece of wire through a turning landscape, careful not to run into the bridge or the mountain, with extra points for flying under the bridge rather than over it. This was not before the age of videogames (another game available then was the classic Qix), but before real-time 3D rendering of other than the most primitive shapes; this game might have well been entirely electro-mechanical.

While half of my brain tried to keep the little airplane from crashing into the bridge, the other half tried to come to terms with the fact that what I was trying to do was obviously mechanically impossible. Like the magician waving a hula-hoop ring around the levitating volunteer, I was passing the plane again and again through this model. At some point, the wire or string or whatever it was that held it up would have to become tied up, or reach its end.

Only much later, after seeing the concept in a different context, I realized that the final steps in my model world's construction had involved a one-way mirror; that the little plane never really passed through that bridge, never really collided.

Maybe one could rig a one-way-mirror to reflect an already reflected videoscreen in front of the camera, and film to the back.

For the consumer market, I could imagine something roughly the shape of a photograph on your desk; only, it would be two-way, and it would move.

Memorabilia for the 21st century.

[Update: Andreas Kraft, a former colleague of mine who now works for the GMD, remembers:
A few years ago the DeTe Berkom ordered a video terminal from Art&Com, and they build a small series. It consisted of a one-way mirror that projects an inverted monitor image. Behind the mirror is a camera that transmits the face of the speaker. The whole thing is fairly lightweight, and you can mount it on a phone "arm" and move back and forth. I don't know what became of it though. I think they just considered it research. Right now, they're going with completely ugly ISDN-Telephones with an LCD screen and a little camera _next to it_.
Translation is mine. Andreas later added that he thinks it was called "Mediatel".]

Have some way of capturing a person's body mass distribution, and work it into a "bodyphone" rather than just a "videophone". At the beginning of a call, the body shape is downloaded into the recipient (if not cached); then motions are sent as updates. The receiver sees a small figure bouncing up and down on their screen, in sync (well, almost) with the motions of the sender.

I don't think it's an accident that smelll is tied to memory. I think our smell processing structure is geared towards picking out one small element among a multitude of possibles and then retaining it in its complexity. (That is different of the more discrete kind of processing that we do when understanding a scene or a sentence.) Once one has "homed in" on a smell, it doesn't have to be very strong to still be noticed.

A TV remote control with a small LCD screen built-in that lets the selecting person preview the image they're sending to the group screen. TV tuner is broadcasting the small image (or all possible such images?) via radio.

Two-way drones

Let's say Fry's (a big electronics chain) makes their inventory accessible over the net. The stuff on the shelves and the inventory differ; how do you figure out what is actually there without relying on sales assistance? Users logged in via the web get little periscope-headed drones to wheel around the store. Once a drone gets in the general area of the thing the buyer wants, it can be made to "blink", attracting the intereste of one of the customers in the area. The drone has a mike/speaker or terminal that can be used to talk back to the person wishing to purchase something. The rest is social interaction between two customers.

(That's probably not world's best use of drones, but I would like to pry computer-mediated interaction from the stasis it right now demands from its participants; terminals that can come up to you and blink at you sound like a step in the right direction.)

Produce and sell fake "live" backdrops for people with video phones. Kremlin, the oval office, tornado victims.

Also, "blue screen" scene alanalysis software that can turn the parts of the image that consistently don't move into any GIF you pick. (If you have props, pick them up and wiggle them briefly before transmission starts.)


Stage 1 Service: Given the (approximate) name of a program and location (initially, the New York area) and time of reception, a writeable DVD with that program can be sent to the customer (a mail-order version of lending a videotape from a video store). Portable DVD players can also be rented. The DVDs can be rented or bought.

Resources: Legal agreements with the broadcasting stations, digital storage for the actual media, receiving stations that record it, briefly trained editors to find and copy the media, shipping and accounting departments.

Audience: People that normally don't watch TV, but need to follow up to references to themselves, their products, shows they want to appear on or work with.

Stage 2 Service: Companies and individuals can set up recording accounts with TranscripTV. Account holders describe the type of scene or name of the program they're looking for, and receive weekly update DVDs with a week's worth of the requested scenes. It is cheap to record every instance of your favorite show; it is expensive to record every mentioning of Mayor Giuliani.

Resources: Programs are recorded with an additional text track where transcribers note general references and particular items of interest to current subscribers.

Audience: Media/PR departments; people who would normally own a ReplayTV but have no home to put it in.

Stage 3 Service: Instantaneous reply over the Internet of scenes described by text to subscribers; a greppable, browsable database of recent broadcast television media. Subscribers can refer to clips in a number of streaming video formats, or edit their own segment and then order it for delivery on DVD.

Resources: Streaming media technologies and servers; better, possibly automated transcription; experimental scene and text recognition services. A high-bandwidth media distribution network connecting smaller recording and shipping outlets spread throughout the country.

Audience: A mass audience that has become used to the Web model of greppable, instantenous media availability and wishes it would only apply to television, too.

Heavy executive whiteboards, milky glass held gingerly in mahagony frames, for use in front of window office walls.


Given a hard recognition problem, simplify the job. Specifically, I wonder whether it would be possibly to automatically transcribe speech data into anything written that a human could understand - some sort of phonetic representation one reads to oneself to recreate the sounds - and leave the grammar and word boundary recognition to the human brain. (What would a spoken equivalent of Graffiti be called, "Late-night Ambulance Speeding"? "People Passing By in Large American Cars with their Sterio Turned Way Up"?)

Pop Thesuarus

A web and database application that attempts to catalogue human experience in terms of the subjects, themes, and metaphors used in pop songs, with an abnormally enlarged branch on nuances of lost love, no doubt.

overinteracting - nodding and saying "hm-hm" in movie theatres, in front of the TV; talking to other drivers while in cars.

Saturn is advertising their three-door coupe with footage of a child getting in and out of the car on an empty road in a cornfield and in a driveway of the generic suburban idyll. Had they used city roads, a viewer would notice that the door is on the driver side, hence on the side where exiting passengers have to avoid oncoming traffic - not safe for children. (However, a third driver-side door is convenient for single grocery-shopping yuppies like me; but why would you show me pictures of children to make me buy a car?)

A wristwatch for obsessive people on a diet. Start it in the morning; in accordance with a pre-set total daily calory intake, calories are added to the displayed number an can be subtracted as they are consumed.
A very expensive restaurant where, for each dish ordered, a monitor is placed on the guest's table; cameras in the kitchen controlled by a central director broadcast the preparation of each specific dish to the customer, until finally the image is replaced by the dish. (Waiters carry small cameras dagling from portable camera stands clipped to the plate.)
An air-filled rubber toy body with valves between head, arms, legs, belly. The valves can be opened by squeezing them slightly, allowing the air to be oved from one part to an adjacent one. (A cross between gumby and a balloon animal.) Watch the incredible transformation of muscleman into brainiac!
A wristwatch-shaped device for deaf people that translates high-frequency noises into low-frequency vibrations, so it becomes possible to hear a doorbell, a ringing telephone, or someone shouting at you from a direction you're not looking into. (How does one tell---can one tell---a ring from a talking voice? Maybe regularity of a signal can make up for volume.)

Okay, I give up. The Stranglers, "Aural Sculptures", "Laughing" (ca. 1984): Who is this song about? The bad text doesn't scan very well, but it seems to allure to someone specifc:

You could have wasted yourself in a plane in the air / But lead poisoning from your daddy to me just didn't seem fair / Committing the crime of taking your time
Chorus: You're laughing, we're carving / Your name in a tree for the kids to see / We hear ya, we fear your ecstasy / You paid the penalty
[...] You could have hung your hat on a pretender's lust for fame / But you refused to lay it down / It took your old man to live in shame / For committing the crime of taking your time

[Update: Bernd Herrmann points to Marvin Gaye's biography at http://www.sdf.se/~simon/marvin/biography.html; he also mentions two other songs written about Marvin Gaye's tragic death: "I Wish Marvin Gaye's Father Had Killed Me Instead" by the Chrysantemums, and "See My Ships" by the Violent Femmes. Good call.]

A MIME type for cooties.

Rather than having all these multipart/alternative MIME types with HTML or MicroThis or MacThat in them, just have people send

  Content-Type: application/cooties
  Content-Duration: 120
  Content-Size: 1048576
and the recipient promises to waste two minutes and about a megabyte of space rendering the sender's text with needless precision, while wondering whether the sender is genuinely obnoxious or simply can't be bothered to configure their software or switch to a vendor that does not default to obnoxious settings.

Buffet magic:

Audience member picks teabag, writes letter or word on teabag, then brews tea. Teabag is removed; the mug is passed to the magician. Magician can reproduce writing after drinking tea.

Magician begins to make cheese sandwich, then turns away. Audience member writes letter on cheese layer with ketchup, then closes up sandwich. Magician eats covered sandwich, pretends to "taste" writing and can reproduce it.

Magician pretends to play "three-card monte" with tea leaves in teabags. (Bogus, because tea bags are (a) closed (b) labeled on the end of a string.) Tea is brewed and actually tastes like the different tea.

Time-release capsules for fabric softener.
Cameras with indentations for the user's nose.
Natural media drawing program: in addition to what is being done now, remember layers of paint below the visible one, and reveal them (mix them in) as pressure of the pen increases.

Time travel at the twist of a dial. Distribute short range broadcasting stations throughout the region that broadcast details of their site's history. Tourists walk around with radio receivers; as they go near a place, they can tune in to it. Different frequencies for different epochs.

[The same with local travel information and cellular phones.]

A stand-alone turntable for microwaves that don't have one built-in. (Perhaps something contracting / expanding as it heats up, "metal memory"?)
The volume of a car honking in response to a remote locking mechanism (if at all) should be proportional to the distance between car and opener.

Why you can read this

A hypertext encyclopedia, starting with the fact that there is someone reading it.

Hardware: There are images on a screen. How do monitors work? How does a mouse work, how do keyboards work? How do semiconductors work? From Von Neumann model to today's architectures. What is electricity? How is information stored and manipulated?

Protocols and languages: IP, TCP, HTTP, HTML, C, C++. How protocols and languages are formed; the IETF, the different people and companies involved; the growth and change of the Internet. New media formats: images and audio formats; how they are registered, how formats and viewers work together. Who owns the physical layer, and what happens there? History of telecommunications monopolies.

Biology, linguistics: How do humans keep themselves alive? What does it mean to see something on a screen? How did language evolve and what does it mean to "read" something? How do people learn to read? Why can we tell letters apart at all? How did today's American English evolve?

Personal histories: Where do you come from, what's the history of your family? Why did you move to where you are now; where are others, where were you when X happened? Why did we write this?

Maybe what drives people like me to surround themselves with scraps of paper is not carelessness but some small remainder of reflexes that evolved in ancestor birds or small furry animals; we're not messy, we nist.

Lately, I've been lucky and seen a lot of Christopher Hitchens on C/SPAN. He looks out of place on these panels, with his British accent and literary brilliance, just breathless enough to make his ethics believable.

Trying to immerse myself in Hitchens, all I find in my local bookstore is "The Missionary Position". So that's who wrote that book. When I first heard about a critical expose on Mother Theresa, I wanted to get it immediately; then I couldn't find it and slumped back into thinking, "Maybe it's a cheap shot by some antireligious kook." Well, that was wrong.

But the book still isn't as revealing, and Mother Theresa's Dark Secrets aren't as dark, as I would have hoped. Hitchens merely points out that Mother Theresa acts not out of humanism or mercy, but out of religious conviction that the suffering are supposed to be tended to; not helped, not healed, more ... maintained. Her other mission is to fight abortion; to this end, she hobnobs with the people responsible for the misery of the poor whose assumed relief built her public image.

Searching for more, I find a few essay collections on Amazon. I don't like ordering from them anymore. First, the place must be gigantic by now, and big bookstores are too powerful already. Secondly, they've started lying with words. They're having authors fill out questionnaires, and pay percentages to people who link to their ordering system with specific book titles. Both good ideas, but the filled-out questionnaires are called "interviews", and the link pages are called "Xyz bookstore in association with amazon.com", suggesting a professionalism, competence, and human involvement that just isn't there. I don't believe in fully automated associations. Oh, and thirdly, I don't believe in the one-click option to search about "related books" on "squirrel abuse" from www.altavista.digital.com just because I can search for it. If they have to absolutely take up my screen real-estate, they should check in their data base if they have anything about the subject.

So, I don't want to buy books at Amazon because, like the authors whose books I'd like to buy, I want people to be careful with their words. Guess I'll just have to subscribe to The Nation then. Oh, look! They have a "The Nation Bookstore" in association with... Ahrgh.

[Update: A year later, the Amazon tie-in is gone, but they've grown to advertise a "The Nation Software Store" that has customized logos, but otherwise nothing at all to do with the paper; it's run by Digital River systems.]

Angels of Prey.

Gratuity Included

My German parents just visited me in Orlando. People who don't speak one's language well are easily mistaken as stupid, easy marks, suckers; tourists, in particular, are thought to have interests other than defending themselves against being scammed.

Out of five restaurant meals we ate together, three of them ended with items on the bill that neither of us ordered or consumed. They were always roughly 1/10th of the dinner value; they always seemed to "fit in" with the rest. One more drink than we had ordered; a third appetizer when only two of us ordered them; a dessert that suddenly rose in price.

My parents, who almost always check their bill, reported the same scam from Naples; once, again, a false bill in a restaurant; and when checking out of the hotel, they found an unlabelled, inexplicable amount from the hotel restaurant on their bill. There was never an error in their favor, and never an excessively large amount.

In three out of five cases, the error was quietly corrected upon discovery. In one case, the restaurant made an attempt to "make good" for the error with free drinks. In one case, the waiter tried to explain the error with his inexperienced mis-use of the cash register; his story - adding a previous amount twice - didn't make sense given the amount billed.

We are wondering: How do they make money off this? If those bills actually come from the real cash register, don't they have to be voided and corrected for the waiter to pocket the money? How many attempts do they make per night? Do they try it with all their patrons, or just with dead-certain rubes like my parents? And don't the restaurant owners catch on?

Cupid teething.

A vacuum cleaner with audio feedback about the amount of dust picked up. Outside of TV ads, you can't really see whether or not you're done with an area of carpet or not. [Update '98: There are models that translate audio into blinking LED light.]

She was undergoing sleep.


-- Stencilled sign on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC

For all I knew, "Toynbee" could have been an upside-down insect, but it turns out that one Arnold Toynbee coined the phrase "Industrial Revolution" and argued for responsible social reforms in the late nineteenth century. His nephew, another Arnold Toynbee, was a professor of modern Greek and Byzantine history, dean of his university, attended both Paris peace conferences, and wrote the "Study of History".

So what's the Kubrick connection?

[2003: slashdot story about tiles with the same inscription; tracker site.]

Font morphing: a set of fonts that each have the same critical points marked (the curly tip of an f, the three endpoints of a T.) Extremes of "times bold here, grotesque condensed here" are marked on a page; the formatter interpolates, slowly changing from one extreme to the other.

[Update: If the two fonts come from the same family within Don Knuth's Metafont system, this is easy. In the general case, the consensus seems to be that the result would be too ugly to even try.]

Are there any pressure-sensitive pen games?

A container for contraceptive pills that starts beeping (ringing, vibrating, flashing, what have you) if it hasn't been opened in 26 hours (except for one week in four, for some types of pill). Could be worn on a keychain.

Visitor ID: Instead of a door bell, install a cheap toy keyboard.
3 1/2" floppy disks make excellent snow scrapers for car windows.

A lock that looks like a normal lock from the outside and opens with a key. But rather than being opened by one specific key, it just scans in an image of the key and passes it on to a computer; the computer then signals whether or not to open the door.

Applications: Locks that can be opened with one of the keys you already have, without forcing you to drag new keys around;
locks can be opened with any number of different keys;
locks that not just open, but also identify the person going in.

Prediction for 1997: A psychiatrist will invent a form of therapy or diagnosis based on soap opera characters and appear in a talk show to present his or her new self-help book about it.
[April 2, 2003: US "TV Guide" cover shows cartoon character "Spongebob Squarepants" next to title "THE TV CURE. Anxious? Sad? Lonely? Watch these shows, and feel better fast." We're getting there, but it's sure taking longer than I thought.]
Oscar Wilde, abridged: There is only one thing being talked about, and that isn't being talked about.

A network of language teachers & classes that offer free translations into their language. To translate a paper from English into Russian, you'd pass it to an English class in Russia. (It's more fun and more challenging than schoolbooks.)

Streets are empty at night so that tired people have an easier time driving.

Java applications:

Central file type registry: Vendors contribute pieces of code that evaluate to a string describing the file type and an estimate of the probability of the file having that type by accident. Users input a file name and/or all or the first couple of hundred bytes of the actual data. The pieces of code run as untrusted Java applets (or the equivalent in your favorite "secure" execution environment).

World-Wide Regression Test: Users contribute pieces of Java that have caused one or more IDEs, compilers, what have you, to fail. The system runs all these either against the visiting user's browser, or against various IDEs installed on the server, or just redistributes them as an archive.

localhost: Internet on a diet.
He was passionately thorough. To him, "Carpe Diem" would have certainly involved the FBI.
Display lighting: Portable PCs should have a light sensor and adjust the display brightness depending on the environmental brightness.

People think that the tapes they listen to are full because they contain music. Actually, music is a recording medium for life. After you've listened to the same tape over and over again while being with one person, or doing one thing, or being in one place, the music has been used up, and you need to listen to other music if you want to do new things, with new people, in other places.

Some time in the future, big companies will subsidize long-distance phone calls in exchange for being able to periodically interrupt them with advertisements.
[April 27, 1999: British Telecom is doing something like that, apparently after a number of others that I haven't heard about.]

Comfort Noise

Silence detection and -suppression is a common feature of digital telephony. When a speaker falls silent, a few moments of "comfort noise" are recorded; then the source stops transmitting audio and just sends "still silent" indicators, while the other endpoint of the line replays the recorded comfort noise over and over again.

Given that, there really should be special tariffs for people who like to be silent on the phone.

Certainty. Whenever software asked her whether she was sure she wanted a document deleted, an operation executed, a session ended, she felt the urge to reply "No." Yes, she wanted it done, but was she sure? She was never sure of anything.

Melinda, First Lady of Magic

Saw her on a Jay Leno rerun from May (or was it March?) just now. To the first bars of Nine Inch Nails, "Closer" (`You let me violate you / you let me desecrate you' - it's okay as long as there's Latin in it, but I don't remember what they did to the chorus to make it run on NBC), three muscular young men crawl on stage, one of them in a dog collar on a leash, held by Melinda, a young blonde in a superheroine costume, bathing suit with boots. One of the men licks her black stiletto heel boot one last time; then she gets screwed from behind. By an about four feet wide, fifteen feet long screw that seems to penetrate her solarplexus. The screw tilts up; she rotates a few times on its top above some sort of evil industrial device, is let down again, the screw pulls back, she emerges unhurt.

How much we believe someone's story depends on the person's status. Hypnotists, magicians, and con artists have to be authoritative. In the first minute of the number, Melinda is working hard to assert her status: she brings a couple of dancers on stage that look quite capable of defending themselves, and dominates them.

Yet the whole thing bombed. Why?
- A Las Vegas audience may appreciate the sexual theme, but the Leno audience visibly would have preferred yet another joke about basketball players with funny hair.
- It was too perfect. You didn't for a second believe that the performer was in danger. "Cool, they can make it look just as if she was screwed on."
- There was no climax in the end, no surprise, because the changes were exactly symmetrical. Stand, cover, screw, uncover, lift up, put down, cover, unscrew, uncover, bow.
- And of course we all instinctively know that the person whose body is violated is not dominant. You can't be dominant and get crushed or cut up or have people crawl through you. If you're powerful enough to make these things happen, you're damn well powerful enough to make them happen to other people, not to yourself.

"First Lady of Magic" is a curious title, too. Jay Leno kept mispronouncing it "{First} {lady of magic}", well, that's his problem. But - I don't know how US-Americans feel, but to me, the First Lady is the wife of someone important. If I wanted to assert my status as a performer, I wouldn't claim to be the wife of someone important, I'd claim that I am important.

compilant, adj.: Not necessarily compliant, but at least it compiles.


Stopping for a break with my driving instructor at a rest stop by the highway, we silently eat our rolls. I worry about having nothing to say, about being boring and single-minded, and at the same time am very glad to be that boring and hope to be even more boring in the near future.

When I was a child, driving on the highway happened in its own world. People on the highway are disconnected from the other world. They live in rest stops, they listen to songs and announcements on the radio, they buy bad music and glowing trinkets they can plug into their cigarette lighter sockets. Perhaps that's why road movies work; another way of removing people from the complicated social networks, reducing them to a few basic relationships.

And then there are vagabonds, sideshows, circuses, who take their social relations on the road with them on wagons or trailers.

To store the font size etc. for the Psion 3a's no-frills text editor, configure the running editor, then save an empty document as the default document. The settings for any plain document you edit will be copied from that default.


As I wait for the subway, the sign behind me announces the introduction of some new brand of cigarettes. The first Lights in a big box! or something, 25 to a package. That's the way. Smoke lots of barely noticeable doses, buy more, buy thousands of cigarettes a day. And feel good. Because they're light.

Thinking backwards, I wonder how many advertising agencies have planned and thrown away campaigns for small numbers of very strong cigarettes. Flat, elegant packages, with thick covers that slide back and forth; cigarettes so - noble you don't dare asking for one from your neighbor. Cigarettes to hand out at childbirth.

Or perhaps every cigarette could, at the pretense of keeping the flavor inside, be individually wrapped in cellophane or foil (or the paper that's already there could be extended and twisted just so), to be individually unwrapped or torn open, each one a gift from us, the cigarette industry, to you, the consumer.

And I think fondly back to the time when I still smoked, to the sound and the feeling and the look of that little piece of gold-colored foil protecting a set of 18 perfectly aligned cigarette filters (or 20, if you bought it in the shop and paid more); the way it would, just for appearance's sake, stick a little to the box as your pull got stronger, and only then let go.

Flying from Chicago to Frankfurt, I'm sitting between two married clarinetists. The husband has started his own mouthpiece business about a year ago; we agree that both of us haven't had much of a life in the last months. Clarinet mouthpieces are made from hard rubber; there are German and French mouthpieces, with the German softer, more traditional; the French rougher, louder. He thinks he's found something that's better than anything he's seen in the last thirty years or so; the man's on a mission. When he dozes off in three pillows, the wife wakes up, and she and I talk long-term lives and careers.

footourism, n.: Visiting places that the Jargon File annexes talk about.

The voices in my head.

What do people do while they program? I've written my secondary thesis about that, and harbor certain theories about the psychology of it all, but, hey, your guess is as good as mine. But something is curious: while programming these days, abstract protocol cruft that nevertheless calls for my full attention - I re-live the impressions I've had of people, more than a memory, but less than a hallucination; `social hallucinations,' perhaps.

Here's what I think is happening. While interacting with people (or when seeing actors on TV), I build models of them; their voice, typical expressions, things they said or might say. And while I'm trying to concentrate, part of me falls asleep and dreams: the models come alive. The Irish mechanic from Deep Space Nine. The Neukoelln working-class woman running the snack bar next to my driving school. They clatter and cause impressions, meaningless, dreamlike, but appearing real precisely because the background information that drives them is what I use to interpret reality, a filter running backwards.

The dreams become more real with increased abstraction and decreased concentration; copying a meaningless string of 0 and 1 should bring them out in force. Perhaps the wordlessness of my interfaces is what triggers them; the data structures have been generated, and the generator removes vowels from its variable names, trying to shorten the words; just a few instances of `GCCICCRt_mnDmnPrmtrs' and there I go again, abstractly excited, looking for meanings to occupy myself.

I love you Gustaf 28. 12. 95. (front back.)
A torn-out sheet from a notebook. I found it in the snow on a Berlin street, January '96.

The future of net topology: who's going to pay for it?

From comments on the CNN site:

You have done a great job in producing this site. I suggest, however, that you make the audio clips available in RealAudio format so that users can listen to them as they download rather than having to wait for the entire file to be downloaded.

Unfortunately, there are no plans to implement Real Audio anytime in the near future. The primary reason is access to the site. By it's nature, streaming data opens a connection between the server (us) and client (you), and won't allow other connections until the data has been completely transferred.

In other words, if we can support 100 simultaneous connections, 100 people could get a streaming file. If the file takes 2 minutes to finish, that means we've just kept a few thousand other people from connecting to the site to get other information.

A central rich distributor and lots of poor clients with puny little PCs and low-bandwidth modem connections. How can one make that scale? Who's going to want it most? Who's going to pay for it?

How about: a company that sells cache space. Running powerful machines with lots of storage and bandwidth, renting out capacity to those central distributors. Then CNN, Pathfinder, GNN, and Yahoo each buy a third of a European server's capacity, and then get the right to redirect references to their pages to the cached pages.

GNN seems to have planned something like that architecture with its different distribution site; I never saw it work that well.

Unless one is a network provider, there's very little incentive for access paths to be short; a long and a short internet connection cost the same if you're just sitting at the end of it.

The one entity that saves money caching is the ISP. So I'd expect the services to change - from bandwidth measured at a point towards transmitted data between A and B; or from IP streams towards availability of data, regardless of location.

YNYGAEPI (You Know You've Got An Ego Problem If) ...
...you read the headline ``Six ways to make people like you'' on a page about books by Dale Carnegie and think it refers to cloning.

Oasis: Wonderwall (What is a Wonderwall, anyway? The Superdog of pet rocks?) The video of the 60ies-retro version by Mike Flowers is breathtaking, down to the cheesy arrangement, the dance steps, the too-slow wink.
I was disappointed to discover today that "GQ" in GQ Magazine stands for "Gentleman's Quarterly." I had thought it was a fancy way of spelling "Geek."
to comute, vb - to fall silent at the same time.
cyberpunque, adj.
[contraction of `cyberpunk' and `baroque'] Overusing some symbolic trick or transformation. Sending roses -<-@ or complex smileys =*:-)X8, spelling elite `31337' and David `Da5id', replacing every `f' by `ph', and then making it all blink.
[3/9/1996 Jamie Zawinski is using cyberpunque in roughly the same sense, a bit more gothic perhaps. Coevolution?]

``She watched her entropy the way others watched their weight.''


I can't sleep. I'm thinking of the deer.

In Nashua, New Hampshire, the car I was in hit a stag. He was standing in the middle of the road, looking at us, and there was nothing we could do but hit it, with a dark, metallic sound.

We stopped and stood in the rain for twenty minutes, waiting for the car to get towed. No trace of the animal.

A week or two later, with different people in a different car in a different part of America, we passed another stag, a dark scheme against a dark line of trees, eyes reflecting the lights of the oncoming traffic.

``Hey, did you see that just now? We just passed a stag!'' - ``No?'' - ``We could have hit him! He could have jumped in front of the car!'' - ``Well, he didn't.''

Get on with it, that voice seemed to say, there's no use being scared of a deer that didn't jump. But I can't forget that sound, and that look, and I can't get over the silhouette coming closer, much too fast.

``People would compliment her on her appearance, just to avoid mentioning her personality.''
``Pet Harvest Bar & Grill''


Riding on the subway. I watch two Turkish guys hit on a black woman who's sitting right across me. She looks straight ahead. The two take turns sitting next to her and talking to her. Then she says, quitely, ``leave me alone.'' They don't. One is whispering in her ear. She sits there, unsmiling, pressed into the far corner of the bench.

I say, ``Hey. Didn't you hear? She wants you to leave her alone.'' Big uproar. Hey, they've been riding together practically forever on that line. They're practically friends. They're just having fun. ``Yeah, right'' I say. They sputter something that I don't understand. ``Can't you imagine what it feels like?'' What a stupid question to ask of two guys who are just having a little bit of fun, in their expensive tailored suits and camel hair coats.

The woman gets up and moves away, without looking at me. The two guys leave on the next stop, I don't know whether because of me or because they arrived. I would have felt much better if she'd stayed.


Saw shots from Reboot, an series for children that relies exclusively on 3D modeling. The protagonist had thick, modeled locks of short black hair; it didn't look natural, it didn't look good; hair is a problem.

So how do you model hair if you have to? I'm tired of the plastic bricks. Perhaps shoot three layers of slightly different brick and alternate between them quickly? Is there a 3-D equivalent to texture-mapping? Structure mapping?

``Nonsense makes the heart grow fonder.''

Magic Wall Carpet

Looking through Nielsen's description of Usability Testing for the Sun homepage designs -

Testing is a form of bravery; actually going out and asking people: what do you think about this? Do you recognize these Icons? Where do you think you are? It's a very primitive bravery; the technological shell surrounding the basic insight that you've got to try things out is still thin. (An astronomer can understand a usability engineer, but a usability engineer probably can't understand an astronomer.)

The most striking feature of all of the nine home page iterations surfaces only briefly in the discussion. The pages, like so many corporate others, ignore HTML. Their buttons and links are painted in the GIF, not structural. Rather than putting a door on the wall, they've replaced it with a magic wall carpet with a beautiful painting of a door that opens if you click on it.

What message does this send?

Affluence. ``We can afford to hire professional graphic artists.''
We have nothing to say. ``In comparison to our words, our pictures and layouts are important.''
The picture is reality. ``You like to see pictures and click on them. There is no structural information in hypertext that would be important to retain.''

Wounded building bleeds canvas.

There should be more support for generating paper from Web documents. Currently, tools seem to think that translating the black and white specks on the screen into PostScript is enough. Not so. I want a ``HTML-to-troff'' or ``HTML-to-TeX'' translator that turns links into footnotes, adds page numbers and perhaps even headers, footers, and an indication of which document this is.

HTML to LaTex from Frans Faase does a lot of this.

The Zener diode. (Mostly used in ESP testing.)
Q: Why did the chicken cross the Information Superhighway?
A: It wanted to get to the other site.

Meme Watch
``The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.'' (John Gilmore).

(Personally, I just wish the net would interpret damage as damage and route around it, never mind censorship.)

Why do I mock the parroting of this phrase? Because it is wishful thinking. Censorship is a serious danger; there is no benevolent ``net'' in the background that routes around it. This is not a game of hide-and-seek. Real people go to jail or at least lose their income.

In a way, censorship is not about seeing things, it is about admitting what you saw. In public. A society defines: these words, these images, these people are allowed to exist.

qsort: Bathing an eel with camphor.
Metaverse: I dreamed I was in a VR version of a web site like hotwired.com, a large casino with bars around which the patrons clustered.  At the first bar, a slightly bored Drew Barrymore charged me $50 for a whiskey whose first half she had gulped down herself.  I refused to pay and fled past the next, where Kato Kaelin entertained a larger crowd.  As I turned a corner I almost bumped into a badly lit table lined with green plastic coating and almost no bottles, where a geek was dribbling all over himself while practicing his barkeeping.  Begging for evaluation, he jabbed alternately at his three guests (who all seemed either dead or asleep): ``So how do you like this? Do you think this is good? Huh?''


Leafed through a book with Mapplethorpe's photographs - the famous controversial ones, interspersed with flowers, celebrities, and kids - on my way to breakfast; then, reading last week's TIME magazine during breakfast, I find a short item about a ``scandalous'' biography that has just come out.  (Is there an algebraic description of the transformation one has to do to this kind of article to arrive at the contents? Just wondering.)

Later that day, I follow an outdated link to a configured query to the Mr Potatohead server; when I fix up the query URL to query the new site, the image I get contains a mouth with a pipe that isn't on the menu.  This morning, preparing my own breakfast, I wonder: has the Mr. Potatohead site been sanitized, perhaps in response to complaints of anti-smoking activists? Is it non-PC for toys to be smoking?  And, of course, what else may be waiting for those bold enough to compose queries beyond the offered selections?

Mr Potatohead, meet Mr. Mapplethorpe.

Furry press: There'a a veterinarian I've read about, a woman, slightly autistic; she's built herself a kind of furry press, a ``hug machine'', that allows her to feel held safely without being near another human.  The metaphorical applications should be obvious.

Arthur C. Clarke
I'm currently reading English science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke's biography by Neil McAleer. Nobody I talk to about Clarke knows the name, but when I say ``2001'' and ``geostationary satellites'' they usually at least pretend to. There's lots of mankind this, mankind that, which bears to be taken literally - space travel, science fiction, and Clarke's biography are all almost completely devoid of females. Apart from his mother and a woman he married for her looks after three weeks of courtship in 1953 (so much for ``genius''), the women in that bio are wives of friends, or wives of colleagues that prepared his dinner and entertained his friends; the most important of which may well have been Pip Durant, who, in June 1952, showed to the world's #1 science writer how to operate a water faucet in order to get his own glass of water.

Four kinds of meaning.

At the start of chapter three of Practical Criticism, I.A. Richards distinguishes four kinds of meaning: Sense, Feeling, Tone (i.e., relationship to between speaker and listener), and Intention.  Although not under the same names, I was familiar with these categories from communication theory.  (I doubt that Richards invented them; I suspect they may be older, based in classical rhetorics perhaps?)

I'm not sure I find them all that intuitive.  In particular, they lack (to me) a causal, practical basis - the four meanings are not instruments we play on when we speak; and neither do we perceive them separately when we listen.  There is no underlying model of communication, speech, language, identity, meaning.

If they have no function in invention, and if they have no function in perception, what is the point of inventing the categories (and demanding that they be used to compose and analyze text) at all?  Is any kind of access to meaning, however random, good enough?

Programming words: substructure-redirect, localcmd, query_prevent_something.

I have used and known these words briefly - the first is an X/Window Event; the second, a command in LPMud; the third, a function in the LPMud programming language LPC.  I don't use them anymore, but they still follow me around, they have in some weird way become language I would like to use.

Whenever I have to write the HTML <blockquote> element, it turns into a <localcmd> (which doesn't make the least bit of sense, their functionalities are technically unrelated); but ``query_prevent_...'' is still attached to a vague feeling of carefulness.  Substructure­redirect is fun to pronounce, all those s's and r's and ct's.  (I also wish I was so complex that I not only had a substructure - rather than just a structure - but even had to redirect it!)

Afterlife: a postmodern (in the sense of the Italian architecture clique in the late 60ies) existence in a domed, featureless, white mallscape without furniture or individual buildings.
Two pages of which book contain: purloin, auteur, frisson, repudiation, effuse, detritus, sumptuary, dissimulate, frontage, seminal, rampart, clerestories?
Welcome to the Jacques Derrida homepage!  This page is still under decon ...

The syndrome of a geek doing creative and technically challenging work for free, or for very little money.  Canter & Siegel recommended using a geek; there's something in the Penn Jillette/Wired article that hints at it.  What's being exploited is low self­esteem; since the geek doesn't know what he or she is worth, and isn't used to fighting for it, they're easy prey to managers (the trait, not the trade) who exchange a few fake pats on the back against solid technical value.

Grrrrl­ism.  They're whistling in the dark, loudly, and out of tune - and a melody that they first heard on MTV.

Isn't it curious how ``page'' has become a colloquial term for the word ``document'' in hypertext, in a medium that does not have pages anymore?  Do we reuse words as soon as they are freed up by technology?  Do we reuse those of whose destruction we can't bear to be reminded?

Q: What do you get if you cross Marcel Marceau and Richard Dawkins?
A: A Pantomeme.

Formerly Known As

I used to support Sun's ``WebRunner'' browser and the ``Oak'' language, more out of news machismo than for sound technical reasons; together with the other USENIX visitors, I heard of it perhaps two months before everybody else.  But now Sun has renamed ``Oak'' to ``Java,'' and ``WebRunner'' to ``HotJava,'' (Hot Coffee, get it?) and someone seems to think it's cute to call Java programs ``Applets'' (as in small application, get it?)

So.  There is a page with sample applications that you can't run, because you don't have the browser - it isn't completely out yet, it's still a little bit in the closet - and the first words, starting with the logo, are ``HotJava  Cool Applets.''

What kind of person writes this, I wonder?  A modern Kaspar Hauser perhaps, deprived of meaningful language for so long that he can no longer emit anything but Markovian variations of the gibberish around him.

The people who write SGI's Silicon Surf, in contrast, also emit nothing but gibberish, but they are genuinely evil, they know no shame.  Let's take a moment to read their buttons.

``Who we are''  ``Awesome Products''  ``Extreme Tech''  ``How Do I Buy?''  ``Customer Support''  ``Serious Fun''.

These people are trying to sell machines costing thousands of dollars like chewing gum.

Bought a t­shirt this morning, black with a print advertising Dave McKean's and Neil Gaiman's Mr. Punch.  It cost me a whopping DM 40,-, is too large (they don't even seem to bother with medium anymore), and smelled like a condom.  Do printers think that people enjoy wearing recycled tires on their chest?  Have they forgotten that one can color clothes other than smearing hardened goo on them?

Selective tolerance to change: When reading a magazine, why do people prefer a different text in the same layout every week to the same text in a different layout?

Blind Test: I recently found the first issue of Gauntlet, from 1990, at my comic book shop, in the cheap box, DM 2,-.  Gauntlet tracks mainstream open and hidden censorship; they print some nonfiction and some censored fiction and artwork.  Half an hour later, I was leafing through the issue lying on my sofa in the sunlight, skipping stuff that bored me - and there was this really funny article about four­letter words Boy, that guy could write, I would have bothered to type that in and put it online if copyright allowed.  So I turn back to see who the author is, and - ahrgh. George Carlin.  (If you input "fuck" and "comedy" to an American, you get out George Carlin.  It's obvious. It's like liking a play written by Shakespeare or Goethe.)

Stephen Thompson, Emily Gladstone, Bruce Schneier, Paul Crowley.

By clicking on a colormap entry in xv's `edit colors' menu with Button 3 (the rightmost one), you can say `make this color like the currently selected color'.  It's what I use to reduce colors on my gifs.  Saved me lots of time.  (The xv documentation is a monolithic, 100 page PostScript file; hence this note.)

Welcome to the Boa homepage!  Warning! This page is still under constric ...

Just hiding documents from the crawler is not enough; I want to influence the things something is listed for.  There should be HTML elements that emphasize and prevent indices.  Troff has been doing these things right for centuries, why do they have to be done wrong all over again?

The Rave scene is setting a new record in arrested spiritualism.
Rave is doing a lot of things churches used to do.  Don't compare it with politics, compare it with churches.  The point is to make people feel good without having them actually do anything too political.

Yesterday, I caught part of a talk show where the host and the German DJ Marushka spent about five minutes pushing an initiative ... well ... the point was, you were supposed to send them a fax with the outline of your hand (it was art, you see), and your name, and that you wanted to preserve the environment.  The host said that the faxes would be handed to the delegates of the upcoming conference on the environment, to urge them to consider ``Einschneidende Maßnahmen'', definitive/thorough actions.  The talkshow host repeated the meaningless political phrase a few times; it was clear that he knew it was meaningless, but he still kept demanding it.  They didn't have a single actual goal.  (But they sure got a lot of faxes.  In fact they asked people not to try other last digits; they showed the phone number again and the last digit, 1, blinked.  ``Damn Netscape'', I thought.)

Before the digit thing, they talked to a caller on the telephone, a slow and confused young butcher who had been set up by his friends during his birthday party and had nothing to say.  Did he own a fax machine? He didn't. They told him to get to a fax in the afternoon and send his hand, too; after all, wouldn't he want to be able to continue butchering in the future?

Computer screens will stop looking like desks and start looking like cockpits.
And I'll thoroughly enjoy it.  I'm feeling about okay, now; I've got three Mosaics up, three tail -f's spewing things on my screen, and I'm busy writing specs for something to allow me to answer my mail in parallel.  And that's not counting the walkman and the funny noises from the boing demon.

I wonder if WebCrawler, Lycos, etc. compile statistics of the search terms used. [Mar 1997: They do. Thanks, Danny!]
Last time I checked, the Free Online Dictionary Of Computing had been asked 17 times to define "woman", 8 times each for "pussy", "adult", and "playboy".  And this is only the Free Online Dictionary Of Computing.
Before checking whether Altoid boxes are waterproof, take out the Altoids.
The only two words in my /usr/share/dict/words where one base-64-encodes to the other are jib and amli.